Friday, July 31, 2009

Part I: It Sounds Better if You Use the French Word

For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about my current form of employ without sounding like I’m bitching terrifically about a job that is generally a lot of fun and full of learning and play. While all these things are true, it is also full of moments that challenge who I am as a human being and force me to acknowledge things I’d rather hide from, about the world, or about myself. But mainly, I’d like to write about my clients, and on the chance (a slim one but not without possibility) that they, or someone who would recognize them, read this blog, I want to be perfectly clear that any moments of struggle I have are not due to them or their precious cargo, but only the journey and alchemy of what’s going on inside me.

So in addition to being a writer who is seldom paid for plying her craft, and an editor who is always paid for her craft, but by a teeny tiny handful of writers, I also provide private child care at an affordable rate. How do we define this?

Au pair?
Ah, oui. Au pair. (Cue adagio emotional accordion music here.) The word elicits an image of a young single girl, doe-eyed and na├»ve with the values of the old country, who’s come here to gain a better education, to land a good job and make her grandmother proud, perhaps to fall in love with an urban man of the New World, and tending to your children will help her do that. She is a mere slip of a girl, but possesses an impossible battery of strength and energy when necessary. She lives in your basement, which you have cozily fixed up for her and promised is off-limits to the children. She has long hair, a tiny waist, and breasts that are so full and perky that they must be an inheritance, because nothing else on her body is formed with such curve and grace. She is aware of her own old-fashioned, classic beauty, and so she demurely avoids the gaze of the master of the house, and his fiercely loyal to her mistress and her brood.

Yeah.That’s not me.

Neither am I a nanny, a pasty-skinned, shelf-breasted matron who always knows what to give your kids when they’re constipated or when they’ve got the runs. She banishes monsters in the closet and she dries tears from skinned knees without even having to kiss them and get blood on her lips. She knits when they’re napping, she hates cable TV, and she occasionally uses your phone to call her girlfriend Gladys and talk about the upcoming or just passed bingo game at the Catholic Church in her neighborhood. (Unless of course, she is Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, in which case she is as unpredictable as the weather; but I never met this woman, except for in the brilliant bewitching guise of Julie Andrews.)

Then there’s the mammy. Oh, god. A massive, broad-nosed black woman with skin the hue and similar shine of polished onyx. Beneath her whimsical red-and-white-polka-dot kerchief knotted atop her head she wears cornrows or twists, but you will never see them because she knows how much nappy hair offends your sensibility. She laughs at all your jokes, she is constantly apologizing for herself, and she takes better care of your children than she does her own; in fact her own kids haven’t seen her in six weeks, she is so devoted to yours, her “li’l darlin’s”. (I’d love to say we left this stereotype in the Antebellum where it belongs, along with hoop skirts and the Confederate flag, but alas, I fear it is just as present as it ever was.)

So I am none of these: I am a sitter: decidedly not a live-in, on a separate career path, hoping to supplement one income with another. I am not a gum-chewing rocker chick who will make out with my boyfriend after you leave, and I will not spend the entirety of the night on the phone, telling your child, “get back in bed!” after a nightmare that sends her in my direction for a cuddle and a glass of water. I’ll do my best to engage your kids on their level, to take them seriously, to look silly when required of me, to answer any and all questions with an appropriate level of honesty, and to report to you any pertinent information. I’m a sitter, but the above images are paradigms with which I tangle. One archetype or the other, or often all three, are at my heels as I clap with babies or chase four-year-olds across their houses, or allow them to dress me up so we can put on a play, or wheel them out into the world to go and look at something cool, silently reminding me of what I could be, or might be or should be, instead of who I am.

I work for several families, all of whom have brilliant, gorgeous daughters. They range in age from 7 “and a half” to almost two. I have spent countless hours with these young women: I have been convicted by the frankness and joy with which the Only Child will speak to any passer-by, a friendliness that forces me to consider and treat people on the street as if they are as human or more so than me, and not just hurdles between me and a destination; on January 20, 2009, I have discussed with the Little Flower that she, like our incoming president, is the product of at least two races and even more cultures, and now that he had been sworn in, that there was nothing in this country she couldn’t do or be if she didn’t want it, and I have turned Big Flower’s living room floor into a veritable city, covered in block homes, offices, stores and worship houses; I have allowed Little Star to make me “magic ice cream, that I can actually eat that won’t make me sick, that will also give me special powers” out of a dishcloth and a spay bottle full of water, and I have read stories to Big Star and considered her eyes, transported by an artist’s glowing illustrations. I really love spending time with these children, and their parents make me feel like I am a valued human being, like the whole of who I am matters to them, and not just whether or not I can provide a service.

So for today I will say that while I absolutely love the time I get to spend with these women, that it is a difficult thing for me to do some days. Some days, despite joy with kids and best intentions from families, I don’t forget that I don’t fit. Some days I feel like an au pair, who is a means to an end; some days I feel like a nanny, who is old-fashioned and completely not of the culture of the home, a relic with a different process; some days I feel like a mammy, constantly mortified by her own presence, and trying desperately and unsuccessfully to conform, or to shrink, or to fit better into the mold.

Some days it is hard taking care of other people’s kids.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Fire Next Time

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no
basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.


From "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" by James Baldwin.


So the story that wouldn't die this weekend was one about which I blogged earlier, featuring Henry Gates's arrest by overzealous Cambridge Police Sgt. Crowley, and the honest and thoughtless response by President Obama; I say honest because I think initially the President probably responded honestly. He was black before he was President, and he probably knows as well as any other brother the itchy fingers of American law enforcement; thoughtless because, to quote beloved tv series The West Wing, he "shouldn't have accepted the premise of the question." Commenting on a story like this had the potential to serve as distraction from things that are his domain and responsibility, ie. economic recovery, health care, foreign policy. I remember being extremely disappointed when I read that Obama had backed off of his initial response, claiming that he didn't know all the facts. (It would seem to me the facts don't actually merit arresting a man once he's proven the home he's broken into is his own, but then again, I don't have a law degree, or 9mm strapped to my hip, so what do I know?) It felt as if Obama had thrown his Black Power fist in the air and given the middle finger, and then remembered that he was the first black man in the White House, and if he didn't want to be the last, he'd better straighten up and not scare too many of these white folks.

And now Gates, Crowley and Obama are meeting at the White House for a beer. Well, that's super. I don't know what's going to come of this meeting, hell, for all I know, it's already happened, and I frankly don't give a shit. It's really nice that Obama can soothe the rankled scales of the Professor and stroke the bruised ego of the white cop, but if he had to go around massaging the finer points of black men who were unjustly arrested by prejudicial white cops, he'd never get the job done to which he was elected. I have some interpersonal conflict in my own life that is as yet unresolved; if me and my nemeses could hoist a cold one with POTUS in the Rose Garden, I have a feeling that might put things in perspective really fast.

So Friday, when I discovered Obama politicking, after he discovered that his 'fro was showing, I was hurt, and my sweetheart let me vent about it until I felt I'd said my peace. I thought we were done talking about it, but the next day at brunch it came up again with one of his friends, who happens to be a brother and a Harvard Alum. Word through the Crimson grapevine is that Gates had to break into his house because after a lovers' quarrel, his missus changed the locks. None of this is substantiated, but if that's true that woman got a pretty righteous last laugh. I hope she's at least a little bit sorry.

But the time when this really got sticky for me was on Saturday night. The sweetheart and I went to a dinner party hosted by two friends that was mostly brilliant. Having dinner at friends' houses is always a bit tricky, due to my slew of dietary restrictions, but the hosts were amenable and familiar, and put out a really lovely spread for us.

The thing that took the shine off the evening was that about half an hour after we'd arrived, the subject of Gates's arrest and Obama's comments came up, and it launched us all into a conversation about race in America that took on both a personal and a socio-political nature.

My sweetheart and I have a running gag: we consider ourselves a hyper-racial couple. Interracial dating is for those amateurs wherein one partner is white and the other is non-white, but he and me, both oppressed minorities that we are, we're diversity heavyweights. If we had the high fashion and pouty, apathetic looks, we'd be a United Colors of Benetton ad.

But this might be the first time I can recall when both of us were on the spot to speak about our racial experience to white folks who seemed not to know the first thing about racial sensitivity. My sweetheart talked about his experience about being the first generation of his family born stateside, of immigrant parents, and of the intrinsic difference he knew he possessed that the white kids in school never let him forget about.

Our host mentioned that he grew up in Canada and attended a high school where there were 2-3 black students. One in particular was his friend. He said about her, "I never knew she was black! I swear, I never knew she was black!"

(I absolutely hate it when white people say this shit, even when they mean it with the best intentions.) "What do you mean, you didn't know she was black?" I asked, trying not to show my displeasure.

"I just didn't, it never seemed an issue!"

I answered back, "I guarantee you, she knew she was black."

Okay, so I can't get away with a retort like this, so I have to draw on my own personal experience of what it is to be the only black girl in a gang of white folks. You think everything's hunky-dory, and then something happens, you do something or they do something, and suddenly everybody remembers you're black and they're white. I cleverly disguised this in a hypothetical narrative, but it was so familiar I could have recited it in my sleep. I have lost count how many times I have been asked or heard a friend asked, by a white person, why, if we are black, we talk white. Growing up, my hair was the most versatile thing about me, and I hated, hated having to explain its changes and appearances and special care to white girls who could do whatever they wanted with their hair.

So to cut a (literally) three-hour conversation short, this Gates-Obama thing launched a dinner party into a conversation about race and race relations in America. I was stunned at the amount of ignorant and downright offensive things that were said. This should have been my idea of a good time, and indeed, part of me was saying, Jess, you oughta be thrilled, think of the opportunity you have. These aren't the bleeding-heart, arty-farty friends you normally talk with. These are regular people. He's a trader and she's an executive for fuck's sake. You're not preaching to the choir here, this is your audience! But I couldn't take it; I really struggled at times relating to these people through their wealth and privilege, and the staggering ignorance with which they view things like economics, hunger, employment, justice. I have an extremely hard time listening to a wealthy white man tell me that he knows the solution to "the race question" in America, a problem that has existed since this nation's inception, an injury from which our body social or politic has still not recovered. I had a hard time listening to this man, who cannot even admit that being white affords him privileges which are denied to other people. I did my best at the party. I was clear and truthful, and I spoke up honestly and cogently when I disagreed, which was often. But by the end of the night, I felt like I hadn't done enough. I was frustrated with them beyond any capacity for words, and I was mad at myself. I felt like I was at the party not as a guest, but as a foil by which these white people could exorcise their fear, frustration and confusion; I felt like I'd had their white guilt, confusion and anger dumped all over me, and because I let them do it, they could feel better, and I could go home and beat my fists against a wall. I was mad at them and mad at myself: I'd tried so hard to tell the truth, but I'd allowed my passion to be meted by a sense of social propriety. Perhaps if I'd gone angry black woman on their asses, I'd have succeeded better, but I highly doubt it; I'd just have been what they think we all are. By the end of the evening I was exhausted, frustrated and incredibly discouraged.

Then yesterday, I read this letter from James Baldwin to his nephew, his namesake, preparing him and encouraging him about stepping into a fallen, flawed world that has killed him before he's really gotten to live. I read this once before, in a collection of Baldwin's essays; at the time it sounded to me like a fiery, potent call to arms from the center of a seasoned soldier and writer to his young replacement. This time, the above paragraph in particular caught me by surprise with its compassion and its nuance. "Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear." He might as well have said my name at the end of the sentence. I was delighted and impressed, and frankly, a bit convicted, to find such care and compassion in Baldwin, an artist who I knew was capable of it, but who always seemed to me to be stoking my fires, not asking me to mitigate them with love. The whole thing sounded... well, quite like Christ, actually.

A pastor I used to know told me once that if racial reconciliation is to succeed in Christ's church, it will require a supernatural amount of humbling from white folks, who will have to acknowledge and cede their privilege. It would also take a supernatural amount of patience, teaching and compassion from folks of color who will be responsible for teaching the tender hearts of their white brothers and sisters. I weary of this responsibility: it is exhausting and deeply painful to continue having to be the bigger person, to want to have compassion for and teach people who, it seems time and again, don't give a shit for your compassion and couldn't care less about what you have to teach them. This kind of fatigue and discouragement is heart-hardening. I must continue to pray for hearts that are softer out there, but also softer in here; that kind of tenderizing has to come from without, because despite how much I want it, it will not come from within.

"And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it... We cannot be free until they are free."
--- see above

Monday, July 27, 2009

You've Got the Look

Before I begin, I have to recommend the July issue of The Sun. It's an incredible magazine, and I am only a third of the way through it, but already it's blowing my mind. The interview with Tim Rice is amazing. Read, discuss, write, submit.

I was at a dinner party recently, where at least two of the guests were Jewish, and the subject of the Jewish look came up. They both lamented, in both a painful and hilarious way, about the struggle they'd had with others about either recognizing the Jewish look, or missing it. They talked about their eyebrows, and their thick curly hair, and their last names. There was a fair amount of jest, but you could tell that it was borne from some real, felt frustration.

The conversation was absolutely new to me. I had no idea that anyone who was Jewish ever felt that they looked anything other than white. With the occasional exception, of a man, woman or child who was deeply observant or practiced a particular sect of Judaism that required a special dress or head covering, I would just never know. Of course there's a stereotypical Jewish look; but it never permeated my perception of whiteness to ever look for it. The thing that surprised me about this conversation, was that these women and men talked about themselves as Jews as if it were a racial distinction, and not a cultural or spiritual one.

The first Jewish person I ever knew was a girl I met in high school. She had straight blond hair and blue eyes; if the Jewish look was swarthy, curly and hairy, this girl missed it by a mile, and as far as I was concerned, she was just as white as the rest of my classmates. We weren't close, and so I never really got to know her much--about her faith, or about how often she (like me) might have felt different in our school community, or even what suburb she lived in--I just knew that she was in a couple of my classes and that she played the violin, because I saw her in orchestra.

It was interesting to hear these women argue about passing as something other than themselves--Jewish women. As far as I was concerned, curly hair and thick eyebrows were not the distinctions that made a person Jewish; keeping kosher and observing shabbat were. I mean, I have curly hair and thick eyebrows, and nobody would ever suspect me for Jewish, and I think it's just as much because I'm black as because I'm not observant of Jewish law and custom (although I know about great communities of African-Americans who are Jewish). As a young girl, I remember wondering how Nazis could tell Jews from any other German, Polish, French or Belgian citizen. They were all white European, right? Now it occurs to me that when you live cheek by jowl with a community who observes different laws than you do, who perhaps conducts business differently, who may even occasionally speak a different language, that you would be able to recognize that community as one different than your own.

But I've always been surprised when Jewish people have considered themselves a different race of people in America. I remember watching a video of college students, one of those race round table-type discussions, where one girl--she was all by herself--lamented the fate of being a Jew on a college campus that was not a Jewish one, how she felt people judged her for her Jewish-ness. I was so indignant about it. No one looks at you and crosses the street for fear you're going to steal they're bag, I thought; you don't get pulled over for driving while Jewish, no one considers you lazy or stupid if you don't perform well, and you don't have to work twice as hard to be considered the same as everyone else. You can pass for white without even trying, I thought. What are you complaining about?

But I suppose the feel of that, the feel of the Jewish on your skin that everyone around you doesn't share--whether they actually perceive it or not-- is real. Maybe some Jews don't know that they are passing in the eyes of others, and maybe they're not. I'm willing to accept that I'm the only one who can look at a person and not automatically recognize Jew, Catholic, Protestant. But I kinda doubt it. There are plenty of people less observant than me, less motivated to put people in boxes in order to define them. I spoke with a Jewish woman who was talking with her daughter about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and she told her daughter that "white people like us" used to own slaves, and that Lincoln signed a document that changed that practice (arguably). Her daughter, one of my new favorite people, was quick to say, "Not people like us, Mama! Not people like us!" She's a clever one.

Passing has always been a sore spot in the collective black body, I think. The idea that black men and women would try to hide their heritage, and that their fair skin and light eyes would help them do so, hurts a lot of people. It is, I believe, part of the seed of the color complex which still plagues the black American community, the idea that lighter skin is prettier, better, and more desirable. There are college sororities in this country that still have paper bag parties. I found it amazing to consider that a man or woman would walk around in a body that was their golden ticket, in the white skin that they wore often without knowing what that white skin entitled them to, and could still feel outcast and in the minority. Perhaps it is a testament to my religious insensitivity that I'm still astonished that a Jewish person could be white and still feel racially different. But it seemed to me that by and large it was hard to tell a person was Jewish by looking at them; not so for someone like me, or for a Latina or Asian-American. You read our cultural heritage on our faces inside nanoseconds, and on the heels of it comes a set of ideas, judgements and perceptions you have to sift through before you extend your hand, or cross the street 'cause you think we're gonna steal your purse.

When I lived with the painter, she talked a lot about feeling her own flesh. I think I've said before she's Swedish in cultural origin, a tall, long-limbed white woman with blue eyes and long blond hair; she's not a Baywatch bunny or anything, but she is striking in her appearance, and quite beautiful. She talked about old men on construction sights who would shout, "Skirt on a ladder!" when she had to climb up to continue painting a mural or trompe l'oeil, and the various people, either well intentioned or idiotic, who would assume due to her blond attractive appearance, that she had little to no idea what she was talking about whenever she opened her mouth. A few years ago she had a sort of relationship with a mutual friend who was black. I remember I asked her if she thought much about their racial difference, what she felt about it, whether it mattered. She told me that she never really thought much about his being black or her being white because it wasn't true: he was a deep brown, whereas she was a sort of pale pinky-beige. When she considered their racial difference, it translated itself through the palate of color in the world, and seemed to have lost all its social meaning. She thought about their color, not about their color.

I remember thinking at the time that I loved her, but this this was the biggest bunch of artistic horseshit I had ever heard. How could a white woman ever lament her appearance as a white woman? Her race coupled with her gender automatically entered her into a place of privilege; she was the standard to which every other hyphenated American woman was compared, and when we came up lacking the fashion or beauty industry was quick to help us reform ourselves. The only position in the racial pecking order more coveted than white woman was white man. Not to mention, as a white woman, she represented the stratum to which every man in America could try and reach: it seemed to me that every man wanted a white woman. To consider my own flesh a color that is the same color as the pulpy insides of an oak, or the same brown on the back of a brown recluse, and not the thing that reminded me that I'd never be like one of them, this was a luxury I couldn't afford.

I think I am learning that there are some white people who feel the bodies that they live in. Perhaps being Jewish is something you feel inside your body, not just inside your soul or spirit. Perhaps whiteness a weight and a texture for some people. Not all people. There's a majority of white Americans who can take their whiteness for granted, who feel their flesh as a medium for life, but not as a facet of identity, nor do they recognize the privileges they are afforded by it. But white culture, not German, or Irish, or English or Polish, not New York or LA or Minnesota, but white American culture, it has a feeling and a meaning for some people. Perhaps they feel it on their skin as keenly as I feel my own culture, as much as my locked hair and full lips are indicative of my own people, as much as my ancestry is written on my body. So while I am still, and perhaps may always be, surprised when someone argues that life inside a Jewish body doesn't feel the same as life inside a white body, they may be right. I don't know. The whole thing's still pretty blurry inside here, but I'm trying to live with the mess. The rest of my life is about trying to figure this out, right?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Why I am not a poet.

Thinking recently of a tremendous poem by Frank O'Hara called Why I Am Not a Painter. I like its movement and rhythm, I like the voice, the personality, and frankly, I like one artist reflecting on his own and the process of another. It makes me smile, this poem. Thinking about it because in the recent pauses in my life (of which there have been few), I've been jotting haiku into my journal. Not anything gorgeous or transformative, just little bits about what I'm thinking about: work, relationship, family, sensations. You know the usual.

Glances calculate:
blue eyes, brown eyes. Whose is she?
"Are you related?"

"Why is your skin brown?"
"Because I was born that way."
Puzzled frown. She thinks.

Blue light pours over
our bodies, bare, beneath the
wide open window.

Trying on futures
as if each is a new dress.
Could I just go nude?

It takes a hyphen
just to explain the depth of
my citizenship?

Stabbing behind my
right eye indicates struggle:
I'll phone her next week.

I know, I know, stick to prose...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Five-o

A new gig, taking care of a family's children four days a week. It's been a real cultural experience for me, and I'm not quite sure how to process it, but I've been thinking about for days now, and I'll say how soon.


But not today. Today I want to talk about Henry Gates. And my father.

Last week, esteemed Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for disturbing the peace, for breaking into his own house. He'd come home from a business trip to China, tried to unlock the door and found it stuck. He had to, with the help of the taxi driver, force it open. Some witness to this suspected foul play and called the cops. Drama ensued, and this is the part we all know by heart. Cops in any city will rarely believe the word of a dark-skinner, never give him the benefit of the doubt. (If you don't believe me, examine the bullet holes of the man in New York who was shot thirty times while reaching for his identification.) "Driving while Black" it its ilk is such a stereotyped occurrence it seems almost a bad cliche, like it's not even real anymore. Except when it is. Gates was arrested, and his charges have just recently been dismissed.

Can we all stop talking about America being a postracial nation now? Obama may have a face so famous that his presidential ass will never get pulled over for being in the wrong neighborhood, but that doesn't change reality for the rest of us. The reality of the situation is that having a president of color hasn't changed anything for anyone, as far as ins and outs and day-to-days of relating to people. Black men are still a threat, a monster, a menace to society. And to prove it a man who owns the home he was trying to enter was arrested on a bogus charge.

Henry Louis Gates Jr is a professor; he's not a superstar athlete (which wouldn't make a difference) or a rock star (which also wouldn't make a difference), and unless you've read his work and seen his picture, he has a pretty unrecognizable face.


Is this an excuse to not try to solve the situation without another nigger in handcuffs? No

Maybe cops in Boston get snarky when dealing with university personnel. Gates showed officers his Harvard ID; maybe this pissed him off and they decided they wanted to make an example of him, to show this uppity college boy that even his intellect couldn't prevent the thin blue line from stealing his freedom.

Is this an excuse to not try to solve the situation without another nigger in handcuffs? No

I don't know anything about police protocol or what was or wasn't correctly handled. I just know that Gates was just trying to get into his home after a long workday. He wasn't drunk, he wasn't waving his big black dick around, and he wasn't threatening any white women. (because can we please just tell the truth and say that this kind of oversexualised animalistic behavior is what really scares white folks in the first place? Underneath all the tiptoeing cultural sensitivity, can't we all just get along dwells a fear and a hatred of the boogieman dressed as big black buck. Either they want it or they're terrified of it.)

When I was a girl and my father would come home from work I could always tell. I could hear his whistling as he crossed the street to check the mail, and I would hear the hitch, and then heavy roll of the garage door as he let himself in. If I listened very carefully and held my breath I could even hear his truck pull into the driveway. He would come upstairs and I would meet him at the top, or maybe go bounding down and grab him on the landing, and get a bristly, mustached kiss on the cheek and a big hug; I could feel all the sharp corners of his pocket protector and pens and work ID poking into my arms and chest. It was nice.

My parents recently moved to a new home, a big beautiful house in an affluent suburb. He told me that on his way home from work, which generally means about five pm, (ie. daylight) he got an unwanted escort from a police cruiser; a cop followed him from about a mile out, all the way into his driveway. He parked his truck and then went out to the police car to ask him what the fuck he was doing following him home--which to my father, and any black man who knows, translates as, "is there a problem, Officer?" My father's not too hotheaded, but he knows right from wrong, and I' m sure he was pissed at this cop (yes, white) who then stammered out some excuse about thinking he was lost or some bullshit, and wanting to make sure he got home okay. I'm also sure there was no give me your name and your badge, I'm gonna tell all my friends in the media and I'll have your job, Dickbrain. My dad just went inside and fumed silently.

My father is also incredibly civic-minded. He works the polls in his neighborhood, a proud democrat, and he recently worked the 2008 presidential election. He was so excited. When my sweetheart and I went home shortly thereafter, he told us all about it, about how he and my mother had voted, and spend the night glued to the tv, about how he would be in the middle of eating cereal, or reading the Bible or putting on his socks, and would pause in wonder, or even burst into tears, and an election he thought would not be possible in his lifetime.

Only one thing ruined it, he said. Some old white woman came to vote at his location. Evidently she said something incredibly rude and racist to him, so offensive he wouldn't repeat it, no matter how much I pressed him. I imagine she could have used words that have long gone into the annals of history as racial slurs, like sambo or coon. Maybe she talked about how nice it was that a nigger had made so much progress (say it with me, now), that he was so well-spoken. Maybe she said that she didn't care how much her son liked him, she could never bring herself to vote for a darkie. I don't know what she said; I don't know why she thought it was appropriate to say to my father, to anyone. All I know is that it took some of the joy and shine off my father's experience as an American citizen.

We must no longer wonder about the institutionalized fear of law enforcement in the black community--as if we didn't have enough reason to understand it before. I think, in situations like these, aren't police officers hired to protect the rights and properties of my father, and of Henry Gates, too? Aren't they supposed to protect and serve all of us, not just those of us who have the light skin that actually permits a belief of innocent until proven guilty? Don't I pay taxes so that I don't have to be afraid of cops, when I need help I can believe that the men in blue will help me, and not try to pin me to a car, humiliate and victimize me? I'm reminded of an episode of the Boondocks called "Thank You for Not Snitching". Why the hell would a person of color want to talk to the cops, if we think, and are proven right time and time again, that as far as we are concerned, they're agents of chaos, and not of order?

I love it when white people ask me if I'm mad. Don't ask me if I'm mad. Fuck yes, I'm mad. And if you don't know why then you haven't been paying attention.

President Obama has the good fortune of being a black man with a face that will be recognizable for the rest of his life. He will never, ever be just another black face in a rich neighborhood. He will draw focus for his celebrity, for his political career, for his ability to lead our nation. The rest of us aren't so lucky. We draw focus, every day, for just being black.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What's a fish need with a bicycle?

While in a waiting room yesterday, I read from a book called Jane Sexes It Up, a really interesting collection of essays on feminist theory and pop culture. (Incidentally, for someone without health insurance trying to clean out her body, I have the coolest women's health care in the world. If you're in the Chicago area, and looking for affordable gynecology, counseling, acupuncture, or just women-friendly community, I absolutely recommend it.) I read from an essay called "The Feminist Wife?: Notes from a Political Engagement." There were so many things that the writer discussed, among them her ardent desire to keep her last name when she got married, having to cope with her fear that she would go unloved due to her academic ambition, and her gnawing insecurity when she discovered that she was ready to get married and her boyfriend (now husband) needed more time. (oh, so familiar)

As a girl, I don't remember ever thinking that marriage was something that was inherently anti-feminist. I suppose the institution historically reeks of female subjugation--a woman being passed, via name and right, from father to husband, a dowry of goods in exchange for taking her off my hands, marriages to align tribes of people, countries and governments, sometimes, "Woman, get in that kitchen and make me some pie!", blah blah. I mean, sure, in some ancient cultures, and some modern ones, too, the institution of marriage does look pretty freakin' offensive.

And maybe its no accident that when I gave my brain the fill-in the blank, "institution of...", what came back were "marriage" and "slavery".

I do remember being in the clutches of a wicked panic a few years ago. Not the typical quarterlife women's fear that I'd never get married. I was terrified that marriage was all these awful things: that it was about serving men and swallowing my opinion and remaining silent so my husband can be the priest of the household, and deferring any and all of my mental, emotional, professional and sexual desires and expressions to him first so he can judge me for them and tell me that I should change, and then do whatever the hell he wanted in the first place. This was right around the time when women I knew were getting married. Some of them married men who were thoughtful and sensitive and secure, and not threatened by the dynamism and vitality and strength of a woman at all. And some of them promised to follow their man where he would lead (no doubt bearing all their worldly possessions on her back) and to submit herself to him in all things. I wasn't afraid I'd never get married (it can't be that hard to settle for any poor fool looking for a wife). I was afraid that I wouldn't ever find a man who would marry me, the woman that I am: loud, opinionated, passionate, ambitious, headstrong and impatient. It's taken me a long time to realize that all these things that I often view as flaws are also graces, and that God put these graces in me because I am fearfully and wonderfully made, a marvelous work (although under quite a bit of construction). It seemed impossible to me that He'd also created a man who would love all those things about me. I feared that marriage was just a racket to squelch the beauty and largess of women like myself; that we could marry, but in exchange we'd be forced to alienate the truest parts of ourselves. I couldn't live with an institution like that. I wanted a friend, a lover and a companion, a fellow maker of things, to walk with me through life. I wanted a life partner; I was scared I couldn't have the life partner that I wanted, because that's not what marriage is.

This existential crisis seemed like my feminism and my faith locking horns. I didn't think that God had created an institution that wouldn't serve me; I thought we humans had just made a cock-up of it.

But aren't cultural institutions relative? There are some practices I think are absolutely abhorrent in other parts of the world, that are just all in a day's work, and no amount of my self-righteous outrage is going to change how a culture runs, eh? There are women in marriages who stand proudly, silent as dirt, behind their husbands, who are happy to do so; their needs as wives and a woman are totally met. That's one kind of marriage, but I get to have something different, right? Marriage could be offensive and belittling someplace else, but I'm not there; I'm here. Don't I, don't we, have the freedom and the ability to make marriage what we want it to be?

My parents, for all their difference, have a pretty amazing marriage. They are incredibly different people, and I sometimes wonder how it is that they got together at all, much less how they stayed together for almost thirty-two years. There are absolutely things I want to do different, patterns of behavior that I am doing my best to break. But for all the things I've noticed about my parents, I've never once thought they had a marriage of inequality. My mother took her husband's name, kept her career, struggled, succeeded, sometimes failed, and managed to raise a daughter pretty well. My father worked hard, gave back to his community, had the tough conversations and was not afraid to be sensitive, tender and forgiving, things that men aren't usually heralded for, and also raised a daughter. They traded the labels of leader and caregiver, of father and mother, like they were tools, able to be used by both, specified for neither. No pink-handled pot-holders and blue-handled rakes; they both did what they had to do to raise their family, and there was never any question about woman's work versus man's work. They did these things, too, in the shadow of all the New Testament dictum and arguably misogynist language that brings my hackles up.

"A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," I read in this book. Funny. Clever. And maybe not; I've always thought that a woman didn't need a man for anything she could do by herself. But it's okay, and doesn't make me any less of a feminist for wanting one, or wanting to spend the rest of my life with one. Whether I keep my name or give it away (really, it's not mine, it's my dad's anyway), whether I work or stay home with kids, I can love my womanhood and love my man at the same time. I suppose that as this journey continues, I'm in for the kind of self-reckoning this writer was doing, reconciling her love for dinner parties and her fierce ambitious independence. Today, I just keep reminding myself that the relationship that I'm making with my sweetheart gets to look like what we want. It doesn't have to align with institutional history or subvert it. We can make our relationship suit our needs, as feminists, as friends, as artists and lovers. It gets to be ours.

So often that feels like a new idea. I like how it feels.

p.s. don't let the loaded language of marriage as a creation of God fool you. Marriage is an institution of the state and the church, and any two people who want to knit their lives together, any two, should have the right to do so everywhere. Marriage is an act of tradition, and love is an act of revolution.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fiction-- Fake Jewelry

originally published in Columbia College Chicago's Story Week Reader 2008

She’d been fucking Miles Austin for three months when he said it. They were in bed together. As soon as it happened, all that pretty, white magic began to flake off him like the skin of a false pearl, leaving behind a dented, ordinary bead. He’d run his large, manicured hands up the hourglass of her ribcage and breasts and exhaled in delight, “God, I love the way your skin looks next to mine.”
Her eyes snapped open. She looked at her torso—a warm brown made darker by the shadows—over which his hands danced like albino spiders. He’d become just like the rest of them. Only her darkness aroused him: that brown-skinned, field nigger fantasy. His body taunted her, vibrant, rice-paper white in the night, underneath her dark body, tangled between black bed sheets. Whether it was the sight of him beneath her that disgusted her, or the squeamish feeling from him rubbing against her insides, she didn’t know. She knew only that in that moment he’d begun shedding shimmery imitation flecks of himself all over her. It always came to this; she’d been foolish to think Miles would be any different. She wanted the night over. She grabbed the headboard, tightened around him and began to bounce. He came faster when she bounced.

Deborah Burkett was a paralegal who worked for Miles at Hollis, Dyche & Austin: tall, quiet, with high cheekbones, a megawatt smile and a conspicuous lack of ambition. Every other paralegal was killing time before grad school, but Deborah had been hired at 24, and remained four years later. Sure, he’d noticed her. She wasn’t the fair-skinned, headband-wearing coquette marching through the revolving door; she was different. The legs had come first, long sturdy pipes that promised strength and grace. He liked her in trousers and pointy-toed shoes, but was driven to distraction by her skirts: short enough to display the calves of a dancer, tight enough to suggest the thighs of a climber. And she had this hair, a thick, kinky, shapely afro; he daydreamed about how hair like that would feel against his chest, brushing between his legs. Of course he noticed her; but she, like others, was upwardly mobile. Right? Then a year went by, and he realized she was the only girl still there who’d been there a year ago. He began to wonder if he could have her. Another year slid past them both as he watched her: bending over to load files into a bag to take home; walking, with just the right rhythm and shake, to the copy machine; reaching across him for a napkin during a lunch meeting in the conference room. Why couldn’t he have her? More time passed: her left hand stayed conspicuously bare, her ambition conspicuously absent. If what they said about black women was true, she’d be the best lay of his life. He was cocky, he was curious, and he was bored; so, after four years of watching, elevator chitchat and harmless flirting, he pounced. He offered a friendly drink and she smiled and accepted.
Two Hendricks and Tonics, please, he ordered.
Hendricks?
You’ll like it; it’s a good gin.
He ran the whole evening: cabernet, perfectly grilled salmon, his finger firmly stroking her palm. The scotch after dinner was bright and smoky: October in a glass. Then Deborah was home, laughing softly, her head swimming with alcohol and desire, watching Miles chew the buttons on her blouse open, running her fingers through his soft dark hair. She’d been seduced before. She didn’t care about his race, his age (twenty years her senior), his position, or even his marriage. She enjoyed the trim athleticism of his middle-aged body and was grateful for what they offered each other: passion without romance, companionship without sentiment, sex without love.

And with one idiot remark he'd ruined what they were to each other, what she was to herself. He lay sticky and happy between her legs, moaning shamelessly. She hated his unapologetic desire for the black of her. She hated herself; when he returned, she would take him. He was all there was. He checked his pockets as he dressed, efficiently tucking in his shirt while stepping into his shoes. She lie back after he left, his kiss goodnight still moist on her cheek. She sighed, stripped her bed sheets, and watched pearly beads of him mix with shower water and run down the drain.

p.s. on a moderately unrelated note, http://www.youtube.com/AngryLittleGirlsTV
nice to know that it's not just black women who get angry ;)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Cows and Bear Traps

While out for breakfast with my sweetheart a few weeks back, I overheard (okay, eavesdropped on) a conversation of a pocket of women on the table nearby. They were young and single, talking about their and others' dating escapades; it was all very Sex and the City, minus the cocktails, designer labels and $300 haircuts. I heard the most boisterous of the group say, "Well, he's not gonna buy the cow..."
Okay, I know they were talking about men, and not about the Illinois state fair. This remark was, of course, a truncated reference to the timeless adage, he's not going to buy the cow if he can get the milk for free.
I was horrified, absolutely horrified to hear this remark come, without a grain of irony, out of the mouth of a presumably modern woman, whatever the hell that means.
I was most certainly one of millions of girls who was told repeatedly from the bottom of her mother's terrified heart to wait for marriage, not to allow myself to be... milked, until I had a binding commitment. But not because sex might be an amazing physical and emotional connection that would heighten the intimacy in my marriage; or not because sex is so powerful that if I share it with some tool who can't handle it or would mistreat me, I could wind up wrecked and feeling like shit about myself; or not even because sex with a partner who's pledged me his honesty and fidelity would be safer and healthier. I was told to wait because, why would a man ever want to marry me if I'll lie down with him without requiring it?
Hearing these words as a girl, they just seemed cliche; but now, now that I am in a healthy, stable and (praise God) incredibly satisfying intimate relationship, I am able to consider that warning, cloaked under the guise of good advise, for the sexist, offensive drivel that it is.
Since when is it appropriate for women to consider themselves cows? No, I mean, really. Even when our nation was at its most agrarian, women were women, not livestock. I recognize that my ancestors weren't actually considered human until the U.S. Government told white people that they had to treat them as such, and even then it was an uphill battle. (Arguably still is.) But we didn't need Uncle Sam or President Lincoln to assure us we were people and not animals; we learned to read, we fought tyranny, we jumped the broom and raised families just like the masters did, we just did it in spite of being worked like animals.
My point is this: a woman who may be with a man, as his wife or his lover, is never to be considered something who will just give a man what he wants. We don't need, nor should we try, to trick a man into committing to us before he can try out our goods. Thinking like this completely devalues female sexuality, turns it into something that is just at the service of men, and that certainly isn't true. Hasn't the myth of the frigid wife been debunked enough already? Don't we believe that women love the sweat and the smell and the rhythm and the climbing and falling, the POW and the twinkle afterward, and the connection of sex, just as much as men do? We want sex; we like sex. When it's is good, it's really, really good, and we like that just as much as they do. We don't have to hold our vaginas as ransom to lure some unsuspecting fool into lifetime commitment. Our vaginas' aren't bear traps, closing around the ankle of he who will do; it's a treasure to be shared and explored with the person (he or she) that we choose.
I can concede that marriage used to be about joining clans and family names and building strength in the community, and also about ensuring that women who were denied the ability to learn a skill or trade would be cared for. I hate it but I know it's true. It makes me want to gag, thinking that if a woman didn't marry well, she was perhaps destined for a protracted life; either to be taken care of by her father until she just can't take it anymore (ahem, Lizzie Borden) or to be jilted, pitied and shunned as the village spinster (ahem, Emily Grierson). Much as I hate it, I know that marrying well did not mean marrying a man who loved and appreciated and respected you, who wanted you as his partner by his side, but instead meant marrying someone with decent earning potential, theoretical virility (never tested, after all he is as virginal as you, my dear), and a good reputation.
But we don't live like that anymore. We educate our daughters, teach them how to speak and think for themselves. We (hopefully) teach them how to love and respect themselves, how to know and care for their bodies, and hope that they select a partner who will love, respect, and care for them as much as they for themselves. Our daughters are executives, attorneys, physicians, artists, educators and administrators. They don't need men to pull them out of financial holes and assure them security.
So why, why are we still teaching them that they are chattel, and that they should use their sexuality to trap the man they want?

God help us, there is so much injury around sex. So much: he said he would call and he didn't call; I've been married almost twenty years and never had an orgasm; he never looks at me the way he used to; I said yes because I was tired of saying no; he told me never to tell anybody; another fake phone number; she told me it was too small; he never asks me if it hurts; I want to stop looking but I can't help myself; I know he likes it but it makes me feel so bad about myself; the list goes on and on. Perhaps rather than deal with the injury, we try to prevent it by teaching our children to avoid it altogether: if they don't have sex until they're married, they won't have to worry about anyone saying they're a whore, or being abandoned over and over, or whatever hurt we live with that we try to protect our loved ones from. But I don't think this is better. When we teach women their sexuality is a possession with which to bait a hook, and not a vital, living part of themselves to thoughtfully, wisely and joyfully share with their loved one, we teach them to reduce themselves in their own eyes. We teach them that men will never value them in any way except as the spigot sex comes out of, and we teach them to consider themselves the same.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Movin' On Up

Yesterday my sweetheart and I went on a garden walk in a local neighborhood. Families who were especially proud of their planting this season got organized and created a map, and picked one of the most gorgeous summer days so far to open their yards to strangers to walk through and admire their flowers. We stumbled onto it after brunch. I know things like this happen in neighborhoods all over Chicago, but it was the first time either of us had actually taken a garden walk, and so it was a little new. I found myself holding his hand, walking down streets lined with homes, some that had been there for decades, some giant single family brick fortresses only constructed within the last five years or so. The neighborhood (as many tend to be in Chicago) was largely homogeneous, and because of its socio-economic status, was largely white.
We were walking down a dappled sidewalk toward someone's backyard, and I remarked, more to myself than to him, "This feels like a very white thing to do."
His dutifully thoughtful response, "What do you mean?"
"I just mean that something like this would only happen in a white neighborhood. Like, if this happened in Humboldt Park or on the South Side somewhere, the map would read, 'This is where Bootsie got shot,' and, 'this is where Ray-ray held up an elderly couple with a knife,' and 'this is where the 5-0 made that huge bust and had the block locked down for eight hours, 'member that?' You know?"
He laughed. "So it would be more of a crime walk than a garden walk."
"Exactly."
We lapsed into silence for a while. I thought about what I'd just said, about how a garden walk was only the kind of thing that white people would do, that it was something inherently cultural, and that no one else could or would want to replicate an experience like this. I know it's narrow-minded and defeatist to maintain this kind of attitude. Why should I think that my people don't possess the drive, or aren't entitled to the joy, of a walk through God's nature to enjoy His handiwork? Why should it be that only white people get the privilege of enjoying nature, that in Lakeview and Andersonville the sidewalks are ensconced with gladiola and hens and chicks and tiny red begonia, and in Garfield Park and Chatham they're littered with empty takeout containters, used rubbers and fliers for last night's party at the club?
People talk a lot about getting out, getting out of the ghetto, out of the neighborhood, and moving up, making progress, moving forward toward something better, toward a yard with flowers and sprinklers and walls you can't hear every cough through. Good schools, good neighborhoods with thriving economy, good community, these seem to be things that white folks have cornered. As some of them are concerned that people of color are going to move in and take over--with out chicken bones and ghetto blasters and magic spells and foreign languages--we just want a place where children shriek with joy of play, not pain at the hand of their mothers, where we can sleep without the bleeding incessant blue light of the police camera tattooing itself behind our eyes. We just want a square of the earth that feels fertile and safe to call our own and do our lives.
Both my parents came up hard, in large families with absent fathers (in body or in mind) and without much money at all. I imagine as they look back at what an upbringing that was humble at best and fraught with discouragement and struggle at worst, they must think now, with a large house in a fine suburb, a daughter with an education that was both good and expensive, several cars and a comfortable life, well, they must feel like they've come up. Like they've finally got a piece of the pie. Isn't this a part of the mythological American Dream, that our kids would have it better than we? Neither of them talks much about it, but when I reflect on my childhood I can sense the work, the clawing, sweaty,dogged work that it took them, borne came out of a naked desire to have better than what they had as children. There was talk of waste, and of how I must be and behave because the white people are always watching, and of what a lucky girl I am to live the way I do and I should be more grateful. I was raised on the idea that once you achieve a thing, you never rest on your heels and maintain what you've got, you always push forward, onward, to more. The freshman squad this year, next year maybe JV? Fifth chair up from ninth, great, now you can see the first chair from where you sit. A B+ in French, maybe you can get an A next semester. Alright, cross Northwestern off your list, now when do you go to grad school?
I never realized the kind of pressure it made me feel. I just always thought that whatever you got, you always wanted better.
I don't know about this gnawing desire; it seems to me it might create hardship. I feel as though I'm already struggling to live in each moment of my life because I'm so fixated on what's coming next, how to get the next thing that I want off the list. Five year plans can be encouraging and motivating, but they're also just a drag on one's attempts to stay present. It's so easy for me to associate this desire for better, for the good life, as one particularly indigenous to people of color, to immigrant families and black working class or poor folk, but really this is an issue of class, of money, of caste-shifting. Oh it's such a dirty word that conjures images of the marble hallways and servants and the tall iron gates of Imperialist India, but let us not kid ourselves that we Americans live without castes; perhaps ours are just more cleverly hidden. Of money, of race, of education: we have ways of fencing people in and keeping others out; what happens when we shift the lines is always a sociology experiment. So maybe there isn't a whole lot of moving up that needs to happen in me, for me. Maybe it's okay if bundle the strange and arbitrary dreams I ever had of what "making it" was: of owning a home, of a yard I could garden in, of a cushy tenured job at a prominent university, of enough room to write and room for the kids (maybe), and still a place to call my yoga space, of fancy dinners on a regular and real leather bags and purses. Maybe I tie these together and put them on an altar to sacrifice, and Dear God make my hand swift and unflinching. Unlike Abraham, I'm not sure God should give me this thing, once He sees I'm ready to sacrifice it. I might be better off without them.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Committed Monogamous Long-Term Spouses?

So there's no handy title for my sweetheart and me, two people living together in a relationship who aren't engaged but who are close: we're not betrothed, we're not married, and for crying out loud, "going steady" makes us sound like letter jacket-wearing, chocolate malted-sipping white kids from fifty years ago. We're talking about marriage actively, we're thinking about marriage individually, but we're just, well, I guess we're somewhere between the tent poles of the handy titles society doles out to better understand itself.

I feel like now that I'm thinking about marriage in an active way, words about it are flinging themselves in front of my face. I recently read a couple of articles that were on two very different sides about marriage. The first of the two is in the August '09 Yoga Journal called "Grow Your Love". If you've never read it, it might seem like an eco-friendly, veg-head, sitar-playing trade paper; but really, it's a magazine about pursuing physical, mental and emotional health in a thoughtful, compassionate, loving way. Who among us can say we don't need more of that in our lives? So often in YJ I read about people who are making major life changes, heralding a conquering of fear, or learning to go with change, that means for them, walking away from a marriage. I got tired of reading about yoga students who were all divorcees; to have a brilliant yogic breakthrough, must I first have a pyrotechnic break-up? I was so grateful for this article. It cites several couples who take the lessons they learn on the mat--together and as individuals--and apply them in relationship. Nothing as crunchy or outlandish as talking sticks and Tantric sex, but some really sound ways for diffusing conflict, uncovering truth, and openly communicating.

The second article was in this month's Atlantic, called "The Case Against Marriage" by a writer who's on her way out of her marriage. It's a compelling argument about why marriage is obsolete and not worth the pain and trouble, and it's caused me to think in a very personal way about what marriage is, and why I want to take my sweetheart by the hand and walk into it. It made me think a lot about the choices we make and how they affect our lives. Is the exclusive private school really worth it if it means I have to keep a job that I hate? If I climb into bed with this man who makes me feel gorgeous and vital and brilliant in a way my husband hasn't in years, can I handle the likelihood that my marriage will never recover from this tryst? Everything we do affects everything else.

There's a really interesting tension about gender roles that is almost going unexpressed in Loh's writing: she expresses women's frustration that we no longer get to be "the woman" (insert pearls, vacuum cleaner and drinking problem here) in our relationships, and doesn't know what to do now that the female gender role has been usurped. You can almost hear some of her girlfriends wishing they weren't quite so egalitarian, and maybe their husbands needed them to be just the teeniest, tiniest, barefoot and pregnant. However, I have enough sense to know that divorce is painful and complicated and awful; the only thing more stressful than divorce is death of an immediate family member. The author might be so miserably, painfully beside herself that not only is she in favor of ending of her own marriage, but the end of all marriage everywhere. I probably would be, too, if my marriage had just ended.

I'm ubersensitive about this and here's why: I am both delighted and freaked about marriage; it's huge, it's permanent, and the odds are against us. I love my sweetheart and he couldn't be a better partner for me; I want to spend the rest of my life with him. But the marriagethink forces me to confront my fears, expectations and concepts of marriage, some I've held as long as my whole life. I have to remind myself that he and I make our marriage, and nobody else, but I'm shouting down a whole chorus of voices in my head. I just want a lot of good words around me as I grow more and more certain in this decision.

My sweetheart and I talk about articles like these, about friends we have who struggle in their marriages, and it seems like the more we talk about it with others, the more advice gets poured into our laps. What happens if I become a wildly successful writer and his ego can't take it? What happens if he becomes a wildly successful writer and begins to berate my talent? What happens if I get easily distracted (which so often happens) by students or books or children, and some worldly, well-read scotch distributor reminds him that he's handsome and sexy and talented on the 157th day that I forgot to tell him these things, and over highballs of Glenmorangie she whispers to him, "would you like to come home with me?", he says yes?

I don't know the answers to these things. Here's what I do know.

This word he taught me a new word, a word he's never used before, for loved one, for sweetheart, for spouse, for wife. He addressed me in a letter as such. I know he loves me today, and I know that tomorrow we will both choose to do our part to make the healthiest relationship we can.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Exhale.

"The earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road."--Isak Dinesen

Okay, maybe just me: whenever I open a yoga magazine or go to a new class or google for information, I see people upside-downing their asses off. Every girlfriend and fellow yogini I know bats her eyes and says, "oh no, I don't have any trouble at all." It would appear I'm the only one who struggles, and all else can just pop up with such ease that they could solve crossword puzzles while they're at it. Well, sod them. Inversions are like some great mystery to me, despite my best intentions. My shoulderstand is wobbly and rarely as straight as it can be, I very rarely can get my feet on the floor in plough, and headstand and is just terrifying. Typically when the concept of inversions comes up in class, I feel a tightening in my belly and a voice in my neck that says "ooh, you shouldn't try that, you'll break your neck and die." I do all the prep the instructor gives and I get pretty close, but then my hips are supposed to be all up in the air, and it's as if the failsafe switch inside my body suddenly turns my hips to lead, and I hear the voice again, "Nope, don't do that, you'll break your neck and die, I told you."
I've been practicing yoga for a while now. I got my first mat in high school, and really got into yoga in college as a means of dealing with stress. My practice had a rebirth in 2006 and I haven't looked back since. I read about yoga, I think about what I'm doing in life and how yoga can help, I'm thoughtful, I'm careful and I'm intuitive. So why can't I turn my body upside down?
Because I'm also impatient, frightened and easily frustrated.

So here's what my yoga practice taught me today:
Compassion--yes, I have been practicing for a while, but everything takes the time it takes. Yoga, like marriage, is a marathon, not a sprint. Much as I'd like to have certain poses down pat, or at least comfortable enough that I can practice without dissolving into giggles, pants or the blues, I can't. Sometimes I just have to go slow and forgive myself for not having the body I want to have. A beloved yoga teacher says, and my sweetheart often reminds me, to "practice with the body you have today." I blow raspberries at him, but it's often the most useful thing to say. I learned to forgive myself for not being strong enough to pull my hips up with my abs, or strong enough in my shoulders to support my body weight.
Patience--While practicing today I sailed through the air kicking up into adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) and even managed to hang in the air a short while before landing on the mat. It was exhilirating- and scary. And so maybe that's my expression today. Maybe both heels aren't on the wall until I've built the upper body strength and gotten accustomed to the headrush of my head so far below my hips. Maybe prepping in a safe, healthy way is enough. Maybe three years isn't enough time: it might take six, or even twelve. Maybe I can slow down and be grateful for the thing that happened now and the practice that is mine today.
Timing--Yesterday bemoaning the distance between me and inversions, I wrote that I felt like my body was blocking me from something, like I was locked out of an ability which ought to be open. Today on the mat, I heard the Still Small Voice say, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock..." How peaceful it felt to remember Christ tapping at the door of my life, hoping for more time. I'm more of a three times on the doorbell, police-fisted knock, text to say I'm outside, peek in the window type. This is the approach I've been taking with my inversion practice, and it will not let me in. So maybe I just siddle up slowly and tap. Just ask nicely; and when the blocks in my body are broken, when the walls inside me have fallen, I'll just float on up there and that'll be the body I have today.

There aren't a lot of places in life where we can extend to ourselves this kind of grace and love, grace and love that most definitely don't come from within, but from on high. Praise God for reminding us that our lives are in process, that His hands are always busy and His greatest tool is time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

White Girl Hair

Today's New York Times featured an article about interracial roommates and what role they have in shifting college students' perceptions of racial prejudice. I feel I can always count on the Times for an informative, if not cocktail-party-shallow exploration of the topic at hand (ah, the struggles of the modern media). The article discussed black freshmen feeling they had something to prove to their white roommates, white students who discovered, "hey, you're the first black guy I've ever met, and you're cool," and black students who cocooned themselves among others like them as a means of coping with isolationist feelings.

The first roommate I ever had was in college, and yes, she was white; and like, white white. If I was one side of the competitive Midwest university coin, a public school grad with an arm-long list of extracurriculars who was in Evanston only by the grace of God and need-based scholarships, she was the other side: the East Coast, single-sex prep school coed who skied in Vermont during Christmas and who couldn't even define need-based scholarships. Erin: shoulder-length blond hair, mean blue eyes, a love of gin drinks, the Dave Matthews Band (the one thing we had in common) and a raging pot habit. She was otherworldly to me. She seemed fazed and impressed by nothing, whereas I spent a good deal of my first year at Northwestern with my mouth stitched shut and my eyes agog with surprise, absorbing everything, and she had a sense of privilege and entitlement that both sickened and amazed me.

She got long, blond, white girl hair all over everything.

On the rug, on her bedspread, on my bedspread, on all of our furniture, on any of the clothes I lent her--we weren't close, but I really wanted to be liked by her. I remember my folks coming for Parents' Weekend that first quarter. My father stood in my room and scraped the sole of his sneaker along a corner of the area rug between our two beds, and he scraped up a melon-sized ball of blond hair.

"That's her, that's not me," I protested, but it didn't matter. I saw the look of shame and disappointment in my parents' eyes. Not only had I failed to prove to my parents that I was a neat roommate, but somehow I was also responsible for my roommate's mess too. I had embarrassed them by not being able, at least to their satisfaction, to pick up after myself or after her.

The white girl hair was weird. It made my skin itch. It was as if she'd brush or comb her hair, pull the strands out of it, and throw them anywhere. It was creepy and gross and I hated it. But I felt there wasn't anything I could do. Her sense of being better than me wafted off her like perfume; I was mortified by her presence and we both knew it. She took for granted that her whiteness and her money made her better than me, and so did I. I had no idea how to assert myself to this woman, how to demand the fairness and and consideration to which I also was entitled, but could never manage to believe or require. I fantasized about shouting at her, "Hey you weird, thoughtless, self-absorbed sheepdog, can you try to shed less all over my half of our room?" But I knew I'd never be capable of it.

I've no idea if our rooming together caused any kind of prejudice shift in Erin. Inside me, she just perpetuated what I thought white girls at a school like Northwestern were: self-centered, insensitive and leaking money out of their pores. And perhaps all saddled with some kind of scalp condition. That year I ran screaming into the arms of the black community, which was anemic my freshman year and had practically evaporated by the time I graduated. I nearly had another blond white roommate my second year, but she dropped out due to illness, and I lived alone the rest of my college career.

My next white roommate was not to come until I was in grad school. It was a different ball game then: she seemed nice, we liked each other and we both needed a place to live. She was a far cry from my first experience in many ways: a painter from a big, super-friendly, sometimes freaky Michigan family, who'd recently graduated from a Christian college in the southwest suburbs and was working as an artist and living for free with her grandparents. Her last roommate had just gotten married, so the painter and I moved in together. Much like Erin, the painter was a wafty, blond, blue-eyed white girl. But she taught me quite a lot. I learned from her that sometimes when you're creating, you make bad art, over and over, because the bad art has to work its way out of you so that you can begin to make good art. I learned from her that sometimes waiting to see what will happen is a useful strategy, and that doing something, doing anything, may not be the thing to do. I learned that sometimes being a white woman, what I'd always considered the cushiest, easiest, most privileged position in America, second only to a white man, can come with its own set of burdens, problems, blind spots and vulnerabilities. I learned that some families, despite their raging dysfunction, really do love each other, and can express love for family's roommates, too. I learned how to paint walls and how to make falafel.

But she got white girl hair all over everything, too. This time around it was still as gross, but it wasn't a reason to hate her. She at least considered herself a sheepdog, and spent more time than I did chasing strays around with the Dustbuster and the broom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Internal Affairs

I'm generally a pretty healthy woman, and generally pretty happy about being healthy. I practice yoga (and enjoy it), I'm extremely careful about what I eat, I make healthy choices. It's true, I have a few indulgences, but they're occasional, and I'm very responsible, and so they don't feel like bad choices.
But lately I've been pretty resentful of my own philosophy on my health. Lately I just wanna be bad.
It's complicated. This August I will have been a vegetarian for almost two years. I stopped eating meat during the summertime in 2007. In 2008 I found out I had uterine fibroids. Ayurvedic medicine suggests cutting out all meat. Vegetarianism became a healthy choice, not just an aesthetic one. When I found out this January that I was also sugar, dairy and gluten intolerant, I thought how frustrated I was that I’d been eating the wrong foods for so long. I’d probably been growing these fibroids for years and they’d been complicated by the incorrect diet, and I’d had no idea. Suddenly a diet that had seemed somewhat strict had just gotten a helluva lot stricter.
So it’s been about seven months now, since I’ve eaten as clean as possible: no animal (except honey), no sugar, no wheat as far as I can tell. I know it’s been incredibly good for my body, and it allows me to know I’m eating right and focus treatment of my fibroids on different areas: yoga, acupuncture, etc. but recently I’ve just been so… sad about not being able to eat meat. I don’t miss it all. I don’t miss beef at all, I always thought it was too heavy. But the other day sweetheart had gorgeous fish tacos for lunch and I moaned at the sight of his plate. One of our first really romantic dates was sushi for my birthday; we shared scallop and mackerel and salmon and yellowfin, and all of that is lost to me now. And barbecue, God do I miss barbecue. Tarantino charming-pig convo aside, I wasn’t always a fan of pork, but a brilliantly braised cut of pork carefully sauced will cause me to weep, and I can’t eat it. It’s the summertime! Sweet smoke is in the air, and everybody’s eating barbecue. My vegetarian heart is breaking because I can’t break bread—well, bone—with the rest of the country.
As Americans we’re not so great at making healthy choices for ourselves. We’re the richest and the most overweight country in the world; we’ve got gluttony down to a science. Sometimes considering all the resources at our disposal I’m frankly pretty stunned that we have a hunger problem. But there are all kinds of reasons why it’s hard to stay healthy. I’m doing my best at it, but right now it just pisses me off, not eating meat.
And then there's the liquor. I stopped drinking for a while. My body can't digest alcohol well, so I'm a cheap date, but the next day I'm a raging bitch due to the hangover. But I like drinking. I like vodka because it tastes like liquid power and you can mix it with almost anything. I like a good glass of red, that's a bit fruity but also dry. I love drinking bourbon, neat, on the rocks, in a well-made Manhattan.
Not so for the fibroids. They aren't so keen on the alcohol. And that bugs me. I recently went to a very shi-shi sexy cocktail lounge with absolutely delicious drinks, and had several and days later I am still trying to shake the fuzz from my eyes. I like drinking, I like eating, and right now food and drink--the things that ultimately keep our motors running--they just feel like teases, like colorful beautiful foods that I just can't have. Makes me want to throw something.
There's a lot going on in my body. I've learned enough about myself so far to know that what's happening in my diet is tied to what's happening to my brain and heart, and body-mind-spirit connection, all that crap. I buy it, I really do. I just weary of having to be so responsible. I wish I could have consciously healthy and culinary hedonist at the same time. I blame my uterus.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Poisonous Air and Winged Monkeys: A Love Story

Yesterday I went to my first Buddhist Temple worship service. I wish I could have kept it all, could have bottled the incense wafting slowly but certainly up to Heaven, and the monotonous driving voice of the elder, chanting in Japanese, and the prayer beads that spun between the fingers of worshippers. I especially wish I could have taken with me the homemade prayer book that was handed to my sweetheart and me to use as an aid in the chanting and singing that took place. Some of the poetry that was a part of this worship service was absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of some of the language of my own religious tradition, and I wish I could have quoted it here. The one thing I did manage to jot down were words of a monk that one of the pastors quoted:

"People always exhale poisonous air."

It was an interesting thing for him to say, and it resonated with me. A few days ago, I discovered that a casual acquaintance called me quite a racist and mean spirited name on her blog. Here I am, sweetly tiptoeing into the Age of Information, and this superhighway that I hoped to use as a forum for art and communication has suddenly been turned into a high school hallway, where the chick with big tits and too much makeup is cursing me out as I walk past her, just loudly enough for me to hear but softly enough for her to plead ignorance if I were to challenge her about it.
God, I hate the Internet.
Here's a bit of the writing that came out of me as per her verbal violence:
"This is the thing about white people in the New World, this shiny, new, quasi-post-racial, first black president, can’t-we-all-just-get-along world: their beliefs and institutions have protected a deep-seated fear of you in their hearts that they will never get rid of. At the end of the day, white people will always be white, and when everything else fails them—when they are out of reason and confidence and compassion and humanity—they will take their whiteness and beat you with it. They will remind you that they think white is better than black, and that the rest of the world does too--just look that the distribution of wealth and power--and that you are black, which is not nothing, it is less than nothing. Nothing is the Japanese surgeon, Dr. Takani, who performs their bypass, or their jeweler, Moishe Hakimian, who scored them a tennis bracelet for their wife; nothing is Jorge, who manicures their lawns, and his brother Ruben, who buses their tables at the restaurants in Oldtown. But you, you black bitch, you black bastard, you are the sludge that fills up their prison systems. You are the reason they moved to the suburbs ten years ago to have kids, and you are the detritus being shunted out of the city so they can move back to the neighborhoods with good location, tear down your roach motels and build condos. You are what drives them across the street when they see you walking with your friends, and you are the reason they don’t ride the el anymore. You are less than nothing to them, inhuman; you don’t matter to anyone, and you never, ever will."
I was disappointed, hurt and angry. Disappointed that someone with so much skill, life experience and intelligence was still capable of the fear and ignorance required for racism; hurt that she would remark in such a hateful way about someone she barely knew; and angry that the idle words of some white girl would cut me so deeply. I thought for a while about telling her off, about satisfying the need in me to lash back at her in defense of myself. But sitting in the back row of the Buddhist Center of Chicago, I got to thinking that maybe this poor, insecure, wound-up soul is just exhaling poisonous air; she doesn't know anything but. This isn't any excuse for her shitty-ass behavior, but we humans are just, broken as broken: a weekend of examining personal demons, reading Alice Miller, The Bone People and too much drinking has taught me that. I can recognize a weak lie of a sad frightened child when I read one. If she needs to breathe poison all over me just to cope, then let her; I am evidently blessed with the tools I need to handle her crap and let it slide off me. I have loved ones; I have Buddhist services; I have vodka; and when all else fails, I have a blog.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Remembrance: The Tank Man

My heart is heavy this morning and my brain whirling, the both of them busy with the sussing out of a patently racist thing that happened to (at?around?) me yesterday. Still working out my words...

Meantime, here's some things to see: The first is an online photojournal of a family.

http://www.dayswithmyfather.com/

The second is something I saw last night, a Frontline documentary about the Tank Man, a single citizen who stood down a platoon of PRC Tanks on the heels of the Tiennamen Square Massacre.
I swear right now, that as I typed this entry, I had this poetic thing about being nine and now twenty years later, and I went looking for an article about how the United States has helped the Chinese government to censor their internet, how American corporations have enabled Chinese internet police to try to erase this awful, inhuman treatment of its own citizens. My internet suddenly locked and had some "error" and had to "shut down". I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but this big brother keeps growing larger and larger by the minute.

When Jesus gave his disciples the first communion he said, "Do this and remember me." The world is working hard so that billions of people can forget what happened to their citizens, to the previous generation, and indeed, many in China have already forgotten. It is our responsibility as world citizens not to forget, to remember this man for his bravery and his outrage, and to remember the thousands of others, the others that the Chinese government has deleted from record, who fell and died that day in protest of their basic rights as citizens.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

25 Things About Me

So, I don't know shit about Facebook, or Twitter, or any of the other glorious/hellish electronic ways by which we stay connected to each other. This blog is a giant step for me. But I've seen a fair amount of these, and as this is new, both to me and anyone reading it, I thought it might be nice to do one of these. Hello Bandwagon!

1. I live in Rogers Park, the northern tip of Chicago, with my sweetheart in a rehab condo we rent from the developers. It feels far as hell from work, my friends, and anything I'd be interested in doing with any degree of regularity.
2. I secretly like that it feels far as hell.
3. I recently celebrated my twenty-ninth birthday. That nine at the end of my age feels a bit like a diving board, like a precipice from which I am about to jump or fall into any number of great, or terrible, things. I feel the change coming.
4. My sweetheart and I have been dating seriously for almost two years.
5. I am a black woman born and raised in southern Ohio.
6. My sweetheart is an Asian-American man whose parents emigrated to the United States from Taiwan. He has a nuanced but specific sense of what it means to be Chinese in America, and he is also eleven years my senior. This makes for a good deal of interesting cultural discoveries, both good and bad, depending on who's been drinking what.
7. I discovered a year and a half ago that I have fibroid tumors. They are extremely common in women, especially black women, and they run in my family.
8. These facts do not prevent me from feeling nervous about the state of my reproductive health and my ability to conceive children.
9. I have been a vegetarian for almost two years. I like the culinary creativity it affords me, I like the quality of food I eat in order to stay healthy, and I like how light I feel not burdened by digesting meat.
10. Sometimes, I miss the feel of pulled pork or sashimi-grade salmon in my mouth.
11. I have an avid, generally rewarding yoga practice.
12. Sometimes I feel frustrated in my practice, because I feel like I should be able to do poses that I cannot.
13. Occasionally in the midst of this frustration I remember that the challenge I experience is an act of grace, a time to learn, and that Transformation takes lifetimes.
14. I recently began seeing an acupuncturist to help treat my fibroid tumors. By the end of every week that they give me stinky Chinese herbal tea to drink, and I get used to it, they change the formula and I have to spend another seven days choking down something awful.
15. I am seeing a really great therapist. She makes me feel both excited and absolutely deflated, we laugh a lot, and there is good work inside me being done. But miles to go before I sleep.
16. I love my family, but I do not always like them.
17. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I am a teacher and a writer.
18. The truth is, neither teaching nor writing pays all of my bills, so more accurately, I am a teacher-writer-au pair-editor. (at present)
19. I am currently working on a book project. It is nonfiction, a memoir of sorts discussing race, gender, sex and sexuality, reproduction and family, and womanhood.
20. I hope to use this blog to dialogue with other people who are interested in participating in the possibility of an oral-history component of this book.
21. I love being an artist. I consider other paths I could have taken--attorney, psychologist, administrator, consultant, journalist--and none of them seems quite to suit my temperament.
22. Being an artist absolutely terrifies me some days, to the center of my self. Some days I covet the beautiful consistency of a 40-hour work week cubicle job.
23. I teach creative writing part time to undergraduates at an institution of higher ed in Chicago. I hope one day to teach undergraduates full time, and also to teach yoga.
24. My sweetheart and I are discussing marrying each other. We have discussed it for months now, and I have recently owned the reality that it is a sore spot with me that we aren't engaged yet. Like a good writer and a fucking amazing boyfriend, he encouraged me to write about this sore spot, and it has become an essay which will be featured on Chicago Public Radio's Eight Forty Eight this Monday, July 6. (This date is also the 29th birthday of my best friend from high school.)
25. My sweetheart and I are also looking for a common worship experience. I was raised Baptist (or close to it) and he has no specific religious affiliation, but has Buddhist/spiritualist tendencies. It is a complicated journey that we make with plenty of stumbling. Sometimes this stumbling causes me panic, but then I remember that my life in God's hands is a process, and his life in God's hands is a process, and that we two want to hold hands in the process, and I sigh, and try to resume breathing deeply.

How do you like that. I thought getting to 25 would be tough. Maybe someday when there's a bevy of whole new info to report, all get to 100. But that wasn't so bad, was it?